The turbulent early days of a Louisville man

June 26, 2018

genealogy, Louisville, Kentucky, family history,

While recently interviewing my father’s sister, Kathy, I learned the biography of Benjamin W. Pidgeon Jr. was riddled with rumors, innuendoes, and gaps in the timeline.

“I’m sorry I don’t know much,” Kathy told me. This was understandable, given how Kathy was just four years old when Ben, her grandfather, died unexpectedly in January 1952.

She did, however, share something intriguing. “I heard he ran away from home as a young man because he’d been in trouble with the law,” she said. “I don’t know anything about that, but I know that he’d been in trouble.”

The story of Ben Pidgeon Jr. takes its place among those who’ve largely been lost. Something seemed to happen during the generation born, raised, and who died all during the 20th century, a disconnect from the origins of family and clan. Facts, legends, lore, they seem to have become eclipsed by that generation’s own experience, which included more wars than we care to think about plus the most accelerated advance in technology and improvement in the quality of life in America in history.

Growing up, I never heard of Ben. He died four years before my father was born, and I received no story, no rumor, nothing passed down from previous generations about who he was or what his life was about.

And yet, here are the words of my aunt, explaining how Ben lived as an on-the-run perp hiding from law enforcement. Since Ben was father to Bud Pidgeon, my grandfather and a major person in the memoir I’m writing, Maintenance of Way, I wished to explore his life further and understand, if I could, the influence Ben had on his son.

The Falls of the Ohio

Ben’s entry into the world — he was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 15, 1892 — came under curious circumstances.

His father, Ben Sr., immigrated to Louisville from County Tipperary, Ireland, just two years earlier at the age of 22, boarding in a house near the Louisville & Nashville rail yard with his father and brother. There he met his future wife, Mamie Newton, the 18-year-old American-born daughter of Irish immigrants. Her father not only happened to be Ben Sr.’s landlord, he was also his boss at the L&N rail yard, where Ben Sr. worked as a fireman, shoveling coal into the belly of steam locomotives.

This might explain why Ben Sr. and Mamie first crossed the Ohio River into Indiana (and away from the disapproving eyes of parents) to apply for a marriage license in mid-January 1892 and be wedded in a courthouse that same day. Then, for some unexplained reason, they wedded again a few short weeks later, this time in an Episcopalian church in Louisville. *Shoulder shrug*

Three months later, Ben Jr. was born. *Shoulder shrug, again*

Of Ben Jr.’s early life, little is known. He was the first of six children. The Pidgeons lived in a working class neighborhood near the rail yard. One day, a Catholic church janitor, who would later (falsely) be accused of multiple murders, accosted Ben’s sister, and that sister would testify against the janitor.

Ben’s life, however, took a turn when he was 18 years old.

Breaking the law

During the night of March 26, 1910, five teenagers hauled a keg of beer into an empty cottage not belonging to any of them or their parents. Ben, filling a mug he nabbed from his parents cabinet, celebrated turning 18 just nine days earlier. He was a man now, working painting jobs where he could find them.

The five teenagers, as the hazy influence of beer began to cloud their vision and choices, then began destroying the cottage. They “battered down the doors and chimneys of the dwelling, shattered the windows and tore off a great deal of plastering.” Then they set fire to the brush and grass, forcing nearby residents to fight the fire on their own before it engulfed their own homes.

Genealogy, Ancestry, Family History, Railroads, Kentucky, Ohio,
A look at Benjamin W. Pidgeon Jr., standing at far left.

Ben’s troubles grew worse from there. A grand jury indicted him on larceny charges in November of that year for conspiring with a friend to steal $40 from his father. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, while Ben’s accomplice received a 30-day jail sentence for pleading guilty, Ben’s father asked the judge for leniency because he “did not want to prosecute his own boy.” Ben’s accomplice went to prison. Ben walked free.

He then witnessed the accidental shooting of a friend during a hunting expedition, an incident which led to murder charges against Ben’s future brother-in-law, the shooter. A jury found him not guilty.

The final acts came at the end of 1911. While Ben, now 19, ate ice cream with a friend at a Louisville parlor in November of that year, police descended and arrested him on charges of stealing two valuable hunting dogs. Another larceny charge came down on Ben a month later from a grand jury.

We know he had run-ins with the law, and what came of those, it’s not entirely clear. What we do know is Ben lived in Louisville, going to work for the railroad alongside his father, until 1915.

Then, he left Louisville.

Down in Kokomo

Ben left more than the city of his birth behind. He left his parents, his siblings, his friends, his railroad job; not an easy thing to do for a young man in 1915-16. Why? I’ve yet to uncover any evidence or hint of motivation to explain.

What’s true, though, is on May 20, 1916, in Kokomo, Indiana (of all places), Ben marries a 16-year-old daughter of an oil well driller. Keep in mind there’s no natural link between Louisville and Kokomo. It’s not like the railroad company Ben worked for ran trains directly to Kokomo or would have any reason to transfer him there. Those things just didn’t happen then.

What was he doing in Kokomo? How did he meet Amy, his teenage bride?

The gap here is one of the confounding parts of researching family history. Legends and rumors spring from the absence of facts and documents. Maybe Ben did runaway from the law.

All we can do sometimes is accept how we'll never know. Click To Tweet

What we do know is Ben and Amy started their lives together in Indianapolis, and soon, they were met with tragedy. Their first born son, William, died in September 1917 a few months after birth due to a malnutrition condition common in third world countries known for untreated water, and then, a little more than a year later, they lost a girl, stillborn from an tragic, fatal swelling of her brain.

ben’s role in maintenance of way

Ben makes a short but important appearance in my book. It’s an imagined scene, something I’m upfront about in the narrative. The truth is, nobody knows what really happened, but as I portray it in the book, the scene is what I imagine could’ve happened.

Railroad, Locomotive, New York Central, Cincinnati, Rail Yard, Trains,
My great-grandfather Ben Pidgeon, left, working in a yard for the New York Central Railroad.

Ben greets his son, Bud, at the entrance to Christ Mercy Hospital in Cincinnati at the end of October 1945. Bud has just flown for three days on emergency flights from Pakistan, where he and his Navy and Marine Corps shipmates had been docked, after receiving word about the terrible condition of Bud’s wife, Mary Catherine, and their yet-to-be-born baby.

As I imagine it, Ben delivers awful news to Bud in a heart wrenching scene of fathers and sons and the tragic turns of life.

It’s quite a contrast from Ben’s earlier, wilder days, but with age comes perspective, and with fatherhood, an understanding of shared grief.

This has been a contribution to Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blog theme challenge and a story-behind-the-story post related to the memoir I’m writing, titled Maintenance of Way. Please contact me at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

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